The phrase “medieval glass” evokes images of stained glass windows. But there was another world of medieval glass: objects made for daily use. This was the first exhibition in the United States devoted to glass made for the use of popes, princes, and peasants in the Middle Ages. The glass vessels and objects in this exhibition ranged from highly decorated drinking vessels to church reliquaries—highlighting the many uses of glass in medieval society, and the significance of the material to local economies, religious ceremonies and scientific developments.
The Middle Ages lasted from the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century A.D. to the rise of the Renaissance in the 15th century. During this period, Europe was transformed from a complex society administered from cities to scattered rural communities and back again; from an empire-wide economy to small-%%scale%% exchange systems that over the centuries evolved into international networks of trade; and from a world that abandoned advanced technology, then regrouped and built the architectural marvels of the Renaissance.
Glassmaking, too, was transformed. After the fall of Rome, all but the simplest techniques were forgotten. But, over the centuries, the quality, quantity, and repertoire of glassware increased. In the later Middle Ages, local products were joined by luxurious glasses imported from the Islamic world and, by the 15th century, the stage was set for the golden age of Venetian glassmaking.
The more than 100 objects in Medieval Glass were drawn from the Corning Museum’s collection, as well as from museums and cathedral treasuries in Europe, where many pieces were held for centuries without being properly identified. Some were discovered during archaeological excavations—which gave scholars and archeologists a groundbreaking new vision of the richness and variety of medieval glass, its production centers and techniques used by medieval glassmakers.
One area of the exhibit displayed glass objects used for eating and drinking, arranged chronologically to show the evolution of glass tableware through this thousand-year period, and to illustrate the increase in the decoration and complexity of the glass vessels as glassmaking techniques were rediscovered in the late Middle Ages. Copies of illuminated manuscripts and paintings throughout the exhibit illustrated how these glass objects were used and valued in medieval society.
Other sections of the exhibit explored glass for the church and treasury, and glass used for science and medicine—including glass used in scientific instruments, for medical diagnosis and alchemy, as well as the critical development of reading spectacles and other lenses. A gallery reminiscent of a medieval cathedral featured the sole stained glass window in the exhibition, as well as highlights of glass used in the church: ceremonial lamps, drinking vessels and glasses used to preserve relics. Examples of the rare and mysterious group of objects known as “Hedwig” beakers were a highlight of this section.